By Rachel Williams
Golf might be seen as a game synonymous with sporting superstars and the rich and famous but one Australian organisation is making the fairways and greens easier to access than ever before.
Empower Golf Australia is enabling people with disability to hit up courses across the country.
The not for profit was established as a disability recreation organisation by James Gribble – a former business executive who was left a quadriplegic in 2008.
A freak fainting incident in Africa changed his life forever.
After falling backwards from a chair, he was left with a broken neck and badly damaged spinal cord and spent four years completing intensive rehabilitation that allowed him to walk again for short distances with the assistance of crutches.
Before his injury, James played golf around the world with a single digit handicap.
Crucially, his rehab was so successful that he could again swing a golf club and after his long struggle he is one of the only quadriplegic golfers in the world.
“From my own personal rehabilitation journey and focus on returning to my passions I felt compelled to help others in similar but less fortunate situations,” James said.
Empower Golf Australia was the avenue to do just that.
EGA’s programs are delivered at established golf facilities and supported by golf Australia and the Australian PGA.
The organisation provides facility improvement advice, staff disability training, nationwide clinics and events, the funding and procurement of adaptive equipment, multidisciplinary tournaments, private lessons and support services.
James says EGA now assists between 4000 and 5000 people annually and he has high hopes to double those numbers.
“We would like to grow from 15 inclusive facilities to over 40 nationally within the next 2 years and empower thousands more to change their lives,” he says, adding that the sport changes the lives of the family, friends and carers of those with a disability.
Once people overcome the greatest hurdle of initially trying out the sport, he says participants get more than just physical benefits.
“The psychological and social sides are most amazing,” James says.
“Some enjoy the fact that you can play with anyone, whether it’s your children, work colleagues, strangers or friends. Some love the fact that it can be an individual or team sport. Others like the fact that they don’t have to only play with other people with disabilities.
And, all love being outside in the sunshine and fresh air.
“Golf is really the only sport with a unique handicap system which allows all individuals to participate and compete alongside each other no matter their gender, age or ability,” James says.
“Golf clubs provide the ideal community to foster friendships, reduce social isolation and build networks for those with disabilities.
“It is a lifelong, low impact sport with significant infrastructure around Australia.”
That’s a view shared by Golf Australia.
GA Inclusion Senior Manager Christian Hamilton says there is a list of 130 PGA All Abilities Coaches around the country that he recommends – with 7830 people with disability participating in Golf Australia Programs last year.
The youngest participant was aged just five.
“They work together in eliminating any physical barriers or educate others on how to best accommodate the participant’s needs,” Christian says.
“We have also created an offering for kids who may not feel supported in mainstream programs called MyGolf All Abilities.”
MyGolf has a games-based philosophy, Christian explains.
“Every game in the MyGolf Curriculum can be modified to suit differing levels of ability. Each activity has 5 different modifications available to the deliverer whilst maintaining the integrity of the activity. Small modifications may include substituting a golf ball for tennis balls, differing clubs (SNAG Clubs have a larger head size than traditional golf equipment), larger or smaller target sizes, moving targets closer or further away etc.”
“PGA All Abilities Coaches complete an intensive training program that teaches the value of universal design principles, modifying activity whilst having a basic understanding of physical, sensory and cognitive impairment.
“Technology has also advanced with a number of gripping solutions available and mobility devices such as the ParaGolfer for people who may use a wheelchair.”
It’s the ParaGolfer that allowed James back on the course.
“It’s an all-terrain specialised power wheelchair which manoeuvres individuals into the upright position, so even the most severely physically disabled individuals can access the game,” James explains.
“If a quadriplegic can play golf almost anyone can have a try.”
If you are interested in getting involved and like the concept of EGA, individuals can attend one of over 300 clinics across the country annually.
The first clinic attendance is always free and many locations allow participation in clinics for free regularly.
Outside of clinics, people can book lessons with an accredited disabled golf coach or support staff to assist them practising or playing the game.
“If specialised equipment is needed we can arrange purchase, trial or hire accordingly,” James explains.
“We also run tournaments for those who wish to compete for fun or more seriously.”
James says there are no real limitations for involvement.
“We like to think that almost anyone can enjoy golf whether they can physically hold the club themselves or need assistance, can see the ball or need guidance or just want the social interaction.”
Sydneysider Cathy White has cerebral palsy and has been playing since 2015 thanks to the use of the ParaGolfer.
The 49-year-old says it’s one of the only sports available to her thanks to the specialised equipment.
Cathy says she loves the challenge, meeting new friends and embracing the outdoors and her long- term goal is to play 18 holes one day.
“Simply getting out of my comfort zone to try something new was completely life changing for me,” she says.
“It gave me the confidence to progress into other sports and activities.”